But their days could be numbered. Authorities in recent months have begun a cull over fears wild boars could spread African swine fever, which is harmless to humans and pets but deadly to commercially raised pigs, a sector that supports some 100,000 jobs. Fear of the virus has already prompted several countries, including China, to impose costly import bans on Italian pork.
A government task force set up in March has launched plans to reduce the country’s wild boar population – estimated at several million – by 50%, after carcasses infected with African swine fever were discovered in north-west Italy. Italy earlier this year, followed by more recent cases, including in Rome. Efforts to wipe out the virus could be an uphill battle.
“I don’t see the eradication of the disease as a possibility, unless you bring about a big reduction in the [boar] population”, explains Angelo Ferrari, an expert commissioned by the government to deal with the wild boar crisis. “The thing is, there are too many.”
Even as some boars are culled, others continue to breed and enter Rome via nature reserves and parks that stretch deep into the city, lured by the chance to feast on the trash.
They travel together. “The wild boar is no different from us: intelligent, social, lives in groups, super adaptable, omnivorous: it is an animal for all seasons and all habitats”, explains Luigi Boitani, zoologist at La Sapienza University. from Rome.
The wild boar population in Europe has risen sharply in recent decades due to a ‘combination of factors’ including high reproductive rates and a lack of top predators, studies show, and they are increasingly present close to parks and wooded areas in urban centers such as Rome, Berlin and Barcelona. The issue caught the world’s attention, albeit briefly, when singer Shakira said she and her son were accosted by a pair of wild boars in a Barcelona park in 2021. The creatures grabbed her bag containing her cell phone and headed off into the woods, she said.
The numbers have increased beyond what predators such as wolves could control, Boitani said.
The plan in Rome, according to Ferrari, is to let the virus work its way through the wild boar population inside a designated “red zone” near the city center, closed off with special nets and gates. Some trash cans are modified to prevent wild boars from entering them. More than a dozen traps have already been set outside Rome’s Great Ring Junction, the orbital highway encircling the city, with more to follow.
The task “wouldn’t necessarily require ‘cowboys’ prowling around Rome, but we will surely need the help of hunters” with licenses, Ferrari said.
In Piedmont, where the virus was detected in early January, authorized “selective hunters” have already slaughtered around 3,500 wild boars. In Rome, the slaughter started at the end of June should soon move up a gear.
No cure or vaccine has yet been found for African swine fever, which kills 98% of infected pigs. Because the virus can survive on surfaces, even in the ground, signs have appeared around the designated area in Rome, west of the Tiber, asking park visitors to disinfect their shoes once they leave.
The threat to Italy’s pork industry is so dramatic that at the end of May farmers across the country staged protests demanding a government response. If the disease enters pig farms, pigs raised for meat will also have to be culled. Farmers protesting in Rome, wearing boar masks, squatting in imitation of boars, chanting: “The boar must be stopped!”
In early June, David Granieri, head of the local Coldiretti farmers’ association, told the Washington Post that two infected pigs were found on a small farm within Rome’s city limits. Some 1,200 pigs had to be slaughtered.
Around Rome, Granieri said, tens of thousands of pigs are at risk. But the more serious threat is that infections could break out on huge pig farms in the north. “Just think of San Daniele prosciutto and Parma prosciutto,” Granieri said, referring to well-known deli meats. “It would get very serious, very quickly.” So far, more than 14,000 farm pigs have had to be culled across Piedmont and Liguria as a precautionary measure.
The spread of African swine fever would jeopardize a sector that brings in more than $20 billion in annual revenue, according to official estimates. “It’s an industry of fundamental importance,” said Deputy Health Minister Andrea Costa. For this reason, the government has allocated an initial figure of around $15 million to secure pig farms. “We are quite worried,” Alessandro Utini, head of the Parma Ham Consortium, which protects the Prosciutto di Parma appellation, told the Post.
Pauses in Italian pork imports from China, Japan and others have already caused $20 million in damage, the consortium estimates.
Italian farmers and authorities fear an American break will come next.
Long before the Italian outbreak, the virus had already begun to spread among pig populations in China and several northern European countries.
Italy’s planned slaughter has been met with resistance from animal rights groups.
“Killing them should only be a last resort,” says Roberto Vecchio, head of a local anti-hunting league, who argues boars should instead be neutered – what he calls an unnatural but non-shedding solution. blood – and transported to be released. .
Meanwhile, Rome’s boars continue to take over the city, cooling off in fountains and lounging on sidewalks. A few have attacked people, but in some neighborhoods they are still embraced by local communities and given nicknames.